JP Morgan to eurozone periphery: “Get rid of your pinko, anti-fascist constitutions”

Blog post originally appeared on my Austerityland blog hosted at the EUobserver, on 7 June, 2013. 

At times, I do marvel how antiseptic, bland even, that the language of the most wretchedly villainous documents can be.

Last week, the European economic research team with JP Morgan, the global financial giant, put out a 16-page paper on the state of play of euro area adjustment. This involved a totting up of what work has been done so far and what work has yet to be done in terms of sovereign, household and bank deleveraging; structural reform (reducing labour costs, making it easier to fire workers, privatisation, deregulation, liberalising ‘protected’ industries, etc.); and national political reform.

The takeaway in the small amount of coverage that I’ve seen of the paper was that its authors say the eurozone is about halfway through its period of adjustment, so austerity is still likely to be a feature of the landscape “for a very extended period.”

The bankers’ analysis probably otherwise received little attention because it is a bit ‘dog bites man‘: Big Bank Predicts Many More Years of Austerity. It’s not really as if anyone was expecting austerity to disappear any time soon, however much EU-IMF programme countries have been offered a relaxation of debt reduction commitments in return for ramping up the pace of structural adjustment.

The lack of coverage is a bit of a shame, because it’s the first public document I’ve come across where the authors are frank that the problem is not just a question of fiscal rectitude and boosting competitiveness, but that there is also an excess of democracy in some European countries that needs to be trimmed. Continue reading →

Kick ‘em all out? Anti-politics and post-democracy in the European Union

A paper I wrote for the journal of Statewatch, the EU civil liberties watchdog. It can be downloaded in full from the Statewatch website (pages 9-20).

One of the more cringeworthy moments of the last few years of sometimes ideological, sometimes street-fighting – but rarely parliamentary – combat between the European superintendents of austerity and their subjects came in October 2012 upon the occasion of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Athens. Two Greek protesters had dressed themselves up in Nazi regalia, rode through the streets as if conquering soldiers in imitation of so many wartime newsreels, and burnt a flag emblazoned with a Swastika as a piece of radical theatre mocking the Berlin-led imposition of cuts and structural reforms. Continue reading →

Greece: “A promise from the army has been obtained to not intervene against a civil uprising”

Interview with former Greek ambassador was published in the New Statesman on 24 February, 2013.

It is always enlightening to hear the frank assessment of a diplomat upon leaving the service, once unshackled from “the patriotic art of lying for one’s country”, as 19th Century American journalist Ambrose Bierce described the craft.

Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos was a career diplomat with the Greek foreign ministry. As a junior officer with the service in the 1970s, he helped assure the then freshly democratic nation’s accession to the European Union (at the time the EEC). He was at different times Athens’ ambassador to Poland, Albania and Canada, and finally the director general of EU Affairs in the ministry.

Last year, he finally resigned as secretary general of the Black Sea Cooperation organisation, and entered the private sector, and now feels free to speak openly about his fury at what he says Europe and international lenders are doing to his country.

“At a certain moment, quite soon, there will be an explosion of social unrest. It will be very unpleasant,” he says, referring to 15 armed incidents in the previous ten days. Continue reading →

Ex-ECB chief: ‘If parliaments do not give us what we want, we will annul them’

Article originally published in Red Pepper on 21 May, 2012

If there is anyone left doubting that the struggle against austerity is fundamentally a struggle for democracy, the chilling proposal of former European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet on how to solve the eurocrisis unveiled on Thursday, should quickly put paid to such overly microscopic focus.

Trichet has proposed what he calls ‘federation by exception,’ whereby if a country’s leaders or parliament ‘cannot implement sound budgetary policies,’ that country will be ‘taken into receivership’.

Recognising that it would not be possible in the timescale necessary to respond to the crisis to deliver a fully-fledged United States of Europe with the associated political and fiscal union, including fiscal transfers and common debt issuance, the former ECB president, who left office last November, said this ‘next step’ can at least be taken.  Continue reading →

The EU’s ‘techno party’ is hollowing out democracy

Opinion piece originally published in the EUobserver on 30.11.11.

Not everybody’s into techno music. Some folks are a little bit country; others a little bit rock and roll.

But under what one Brussels wag recently called the EU’s ‘techno-party’ strategy – replacing elected representatives with technocrats and an end to consideration of fiscal policies by parliaments in favour of fiat by civil-servant ‘experts’ – nobody has any choice any more about what kind of music they want to listen to.

Economic policies will be decided for them, by the experts, by, if you will, those bangin’ bureaucrat and banker DJs in Brussels and Frankfurt.

Fiscal policy, like monetary policy, is simply too important for it to be ‘politicised’, the argument goes. The eurozone cataclysm is so serious that we no longer have time for “political games”, as European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso put it last Monday (21 November), speaking alongside Greece’s new unelected leader, ex-European-Central-Bank (ECB) man Lucas Papademos. Continue reading →

‘New system of European governance’ demands deeper austerity

News article on the EU’s ‘European Semester’ originally published in the EUobserver on 09.06.11.

The European taskmaster has cracked the whip. However much austerity has been imposed by EU member states, it is simply not enough.

That is the overriding message from the European Commission that runs through its recommendations for each of the 27 member states in the new, post-crisis system of radically centralised oversight and correction of national economic policies by the EU known as the ‘European Semester’.

“We are now implementing the new system of European governance,” commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, heralding the unveiling of 27 detailed – or ‘granular’, to use the adjective EU officials use – national prescriptions, telling member states what they are getting right and wrong with their fiscal policies and what they must do to ‘fix’ their economies. Continue reading →

Working the night-shift in the German austerity sweatshop – Part IV: The end of the eurozone

Analysis originally published in the EUobserver 13.12.10

But if what needs to happen cannot happen, what does Lord Skidelsky, a 71-year-old economic historian who has been witness to the full fifty years of European integration, think will?

“I don’t think immediately, but the most likely outcome is that some countries will have to devalue, which means leaving the eurozone. Germany’s domestic policy doesn’t allow any other option.”

“What I don’t know is whether the initial thrust for this will come from a Germany where people are fed up with bail-outs or from the peripheral states where people are fed up with continuous austerity.” Continue reading →

Working the night-shift in the German austerity sweatshop – Part III: Back to the future with the Werner Plan

Analysis originally published in the EUobserver 13.12.10.

So how do we get out of this mess?

It’s relatively simple, really. All that has to happen is a rebalancing of competitiveness between the core and the periphery.

“Of course much of the responsibility lies with Germany, doesn’t it?” continues Lord Skidelsky. “The euro was constructed in a way that benefited an export-led economy like Germany, but not everyone else. They have repressed wages to create room for exports, which then chokes off growth paths for other eurozone countries, who can’t readily increase their exports to Germany.”

The short version is that Germany must be forced to sharply boost its wages and inject stimulus: “Domestic demand in Germany should be expanded,” he concludes. Continue reading →

Working the night-shift in the German austerity sweatshop – Part II: The China of Europe

 

Analysis originally appeared in the EUobserver 10.12.10.

But how did we get into this mess in the first place?

In the 1990s during the run-up to the single currency and throughout the 2000s, all European countries battened down wage demands and loosened the regulations on companies (or, to use the jargon you often hear on the news without really knowing what it means: ‘They liberalised their labour markets’), but it was Germany that won the mad dash to the bottom. The steroids that Berlin had access to that no one else did to the same extent were the aforementioned discipline of labour enabled by the cheap-as-chalk ex-GDR and the rest of the east.

This drastically heightened Germany’s competitive advantage as labour costs per unit – how much it takes to make a given widget – in the periphery of the eurozone outstripped those in the core. This also freed up more spondoolees for German capital to upgrade its products, making sexy German machines that much sexier. Continue reading →

Working the night-shift in the German austerity sweatshop – Part I: Dr Merkel’s fiscal enema

Analysis originally appeared in the EUobserver 09.12.10.

There was a cheeky cartoon that made the Facebook and Twitter rounds a few days ago, posted by one of the Financial Times’ Alphaville bloggers. It went ‘viral,’ as the social-media consultants think the kids say. Bearing the title “Introducing Greater Germany,” it featured a map of Europe with all the German bits coloured blue.

The entire eurozone was blue.

If you passed over the map with your mouse, a caption popped up: “The area formerly known as the eurozone.”

Perhaps the author was taking a light jab at the good doctor of Berlin’s diagnosis and her decidedly uncomfortable austerity enemas prescribed to the entire euro area, or suggesting that through the EU’s bundesbank-inspired economic strictures, Germany, finally, in its third try at it, had managed to rule most of Europe. Continue reading →

The junta of experts tells us: ‘Vote how you like, but policies cannot change’

Opinion piece originally published in the EUobserver, 17.06.11.

Europe seems to have slipped almost imperceptibly in the space of only a few months into an electoral interzone, a crack in the pavement of democracy.

The formal trappings of clean elections – in which political parties with competing manifestoes contest a ballot free of voter intimidation – are all still there, but someone else has decided in advance what the result will be.

It’s not the voters that are intimidated any more: it’s the parties that are.

The count of EU member states now tallies to four – Ireland, Portugal, Finland and Greece – where this post-political phenomenon has materialised, but committed democrats across the Union should wonder which country is next.  Continue reading →

Hurling democracy into the volcano to appease the market gods

Opinion piece originally published in the EUobserver, 16.08.11.

Pacific islanders never actually threw virgins into volcanoes to appease angry gods; it was only ever a TV trope of bad American sketch comedy and Saturday-morning cartoons. But you remember how it worked? However many damsels were chucked in to the fiery pit, the lava would keep flowing, yet the only lesson those silly actors in their semi-racist Tiki-Lounge outfits and drinks in bamboo glasses with paper umbrellas learnt was that not enough ladies had been lobbed in.

Despite the certainly apocryphal nature of such behaviour in the South Pacific, European leaders seem intent on embracing the model. Indeed, I am half convinced that the European Commission has some super-secret-squirrel committee of experts locked in a room somewhere studying Joe vs the Volcano and re-runs of Gilligan’s Island to learn exactly how it’s done.

But it’s not vestal maidens (or, in the case of Joe vs the Volcano, Tom Hanks) that Berlusconi, Sarkozy and company are pitching into the magma; it’s public services, it’s decent wages; it’s democracy. And if one, two, three rounds of austerity are not enough, well, we need a fourth and a fifth! They just keep pitching more austerity packages into the rumbling crater. Continue reading →

Don’t let your slightly racist gran be the only one to take on Europe’s silent coup

Article originally published in Red Pepper in April 2011.

She’s lovely really.

She has a painting of her you did when you were six framed in the kitchen, and however old you may be now, she still keeps Mars bar ice creams in the bottom freezer-bit of her little fridge for when you pop over. And the baby-blue and lemon-yellow Marks & Spencer’s golf shirt with three sailboats on the pocket that she sent you in the post last year for your birthday is now just quaint and endearing instead of the mortifying sartorial disaster similar gifts had been when you were thirteen (mainly because now as you live in your own flat, your mum can’t force you to wear it in public).

It’s just those slightly racist comments your gran makes from time to time that irk. All right, completely racist comments.

‘It’s terrible! Did you hear? Romanian gypsies are eating our donkeys! I tell you, ever since we joined the common market, waffle, waffle, nativist ignorant waffle, Churchill would never have waffle, waffle…’ But you’re only there for the weekend, so you zone out from most of it or politely disagree, but you try not to make too much of a fuss.  Continue reading →

Getting off our knees?

Article originally published in Red Pepper in November, 2010.

‘Austerity strikes roil Europe’ – Christian Science Monitor; ‘Anti-austerity protests sweep across Europe’ – Associated Press; ‘European cities hit by anti-austerity protests’ – BBC.

From the nigh-on identical, panicked headlines that raced around the world on 29 September, the day of the pan-European day of action organised by the European Trades Union Congress, you would have thought that the entire continent was aflame with civil unrest, furious at the measures introduced by our governments – a sacrifice of the public sector, labour rights, social benefits, hurled into the volcano to slake the anger of the markets.

Perhaps there was a glint of something to it. Only weeks later, France would be paralysed by strikes and refinery blockades that left the country days away from running entirely out of petrol. Those clichéd, magic four integers, 1968, tumbled trembling once more from the lips of commentators and politicos. Greece, on the surface, appears to be tearing itself apart. One report in September from that most sober of news wires, Reuters, quoted a German economist from the Munich-based Ifo Institute for Economic Research, warning how ‘political fatigue with austerity policies typically sets in in the second year and could yet push Greece to default or the brink of civil war’.  Continue reading →